No loss for feminism

June 08, 2008|By Sherrilyn A. Ifill

In the next few days, the historical narrative about the presidential primary race between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton will become set in stone. The contest between a powerful and talented black man and a powerful and talented white woman has already become, in the minds of many, a story about the continuing power of sexism over racism as a barrier to equality.

But very little about the candidacy of Hillary Clinton reflected feminism.

First of all, to be a modern feminist necessarily means to reject racism. No 21st-century feminist could fail to understand the complicated but very real connection between patriarchy and white supremacy. Thus, it is impossible to run a campaign as a feminist while making racist appeals to white, male voters. But Mrs. Clinton did just this. In advance of the Pennsylvania and Indiana primaries, both explicitly and in not-so-subtle racial terms, she spoke to white, working-class, male voters - purporting to understand them in ways that Mr. Obama could not, and giving permission for these voters to regard race as a legitimate reason to support her. Her unabashed embrace of what she described as the "hard-working, white American" vote was stunning in its insensitivity.

Clinton supporter Geraldine A. Ferraro's comment that Mr. Obama had achieved his success in the campaign only because he's black (a comment Ms. Ferraro made about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's candidacy in the 1980s, and one she has repeated several times since April) was rejected by Mrs. Clinton only tepidly and belatedly.

Moreover, Mr. Obama's gift of oratory - long the strong suit of black political, social and religious leaders - was dubbed inconsequential by Mrs. Clinton, almost as though being black and charismatic is cheating. Thus, one of the most powerful gifts in any politician's arsenal, the ability to inspire and uplift through oratory, was deemed by the Clinton campaign as proof that Mr. Obama was unqualified for office. And like an employer testifying in an employment discrimination lawsuit, Mrs. Clinton ignored the rest of Mr. Obama's r?sum? as a community organizer and state legislator, and said on morning news programs that his entire career was based "on a speech he made in 2004."

When she knocked back a shot and a beer in that bar in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Clinton ended any pretense of running as a feminist. The whole point of feminism is to reject the idea of masculinized power. Feminism seeks to counter the mythology that stereotypically masculine behavior is the only legitimate way in which leadership can be exercised. Mrs. Clinton's performance in that bar was the equivalent of Michael S. Dukakis' ill-fated ride in the tank while running for president in 1988 - except that feminists had every right to expect that Mrs. Clinton's campaign was premised on the idea that leadership is about thinking and instincts and a heart and passion for justice, not macho stunts.

Finally and most important, Mrs. Clinton's campaign at the outset was premised on the idea that she was the inevitable nominee. This air of inevitability was based largely on her connections to one of most powerful men in the Democratic Party, her husband, the former president. She campaigned hard, but it was her relationship to Bill Clinton that enabled Mrs. Clinton, who had never held elective office, to walk into New York - a state with which she had no historical ties - and become a U.S. senator on her first try. Given Mr. Clinton's political gifts and legacy and the power-packed Rolodex of both Clintons, it never occurred to Mrs. Clinton until after Iowa that she wouldn't be able to attain the presidency on her first try as well. It was that stunning and humiliating defeat in Iowa that brought tears of frustration and fatigue to her eyes at a stop in New Hampshire.

Achieving power largely on the name of your husband is not feminist. In fact, it's very traditional. But in some ways, Mrs. Clinton, contrary to her public image, is a kind of throwback to the 1950s. Despite her prodigious intellectual gifts, her Ivy League pedigree, her passion for justice and her energy, she always put her husband's career first. As a woman who reached her 30s in the years after the key gains of the women's rights and civil rights movements were firmly established, Mrs. Clinton could have been a major political leader in her own right decades ago. But instead, like so many women of earlier generations, it was only after Bill Clinton's career was completed that Hillary Clinton "found her voice."

Mrs. Clinton's defeat in the Democratic presidential primary is not a blow to feminism. She ran a hard campaign, but she lost fair and square to a great candidate, a black man who, ironically, won the old-fashioned way - by having a phenomenally effective field operation in key states, by appealing to new voters and by offering a message that spoke to the highest ideals of his party.

As a feminist, my dream is that the first female president will do the same.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a civil rights lawyer and a professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law. Her e-mail is sifill@

law.umaryland.edu.

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